After toiling for a decade in both Master P's No Limit and Lil' Wayne's Young Money camps, Curren$y strikes a deal with Damon Dash to resurrect Roc-A-Fella Records and, with the help of Ski Beatz, releases the rap record of the year.
And so the Blueprint 3 influence begins. Jay-Z's album art depicted a cluster of instruments wedged in the corner of a white room, forgotten and invisible. His point was that these things don't need to be left out of hip-hop. Live bands at hip-hop shows have been the trend for a while -- Jay-Z himself has performed with the Roots on MTV, while Lil' Wayne regularly tours with a band (plus DJ) -- but it's only recently that live instrumentation has really taken a firm place in hip-hop. BlacRoc is the foundation for Pilot Talk, a release inspired by BP3 and Curren$y's intent to appear on the sequel.
There are examples early and often. The guitar on "Example", for example, is very effectively strung out by an electric guitar synced to the tone of Curren$y's stoner urgency and Ski's beat. "Seat Change" benefits from an all-live band set up (in fact, nearly the entire album was replayed by musicians after principle production).
The addition of session musicians on top of the beats -- worth noting because nine of the 13 tracks here have leaked on various blogs as far back as this past winter -- leads to Pilot Talk sounding fuller and more vibrant than any hip-hop album released this year. Easily. "Breakfast", originally produced by Mos Def but rearranged here by the album's main producer Ski (of Camp Lo fame), is particularly noteworthy with its more energetic, funk-oriented approach. The song stretches the original loop while adding liberal doses of musicality normally reserved for the likes of J Dilla and the CunninLynguist's Kno. "Roasted" (which appeared as "Pre-Roasted" on fellow JETS member Trademark's Supervillain mixtape earlier this year) also feels beefier and readier for anybody.
This is a Curren$y album, though. So while the production has me excited, it has to be the artist on the spine that ultimately gives this album a near perfect score. And that dude certainly does deliver. On full disclosure, I've followed this guy since the moment he joined Lil' Wayne's then-fledgling Young Money label and have rooted for him as long as I've been aware of his existence. I have a stake in him, as basic and emotional as it is. But the verses here, they're remarkably solid. Nigh unassailable. When underground heroes like Mos Def, Jay Electronica and Stalley make appearances, they're relegated to second fiddle not for lack of trying, but because Curren$y refuses to be the No. 2 MC on a given track. Each verse he lays down on the album is so full of humor, character and technicality that I feel equally as stunned as Big Boi's album.
But there are a lot of guests here, and that's really where the album catches you off guard. "Roasted" and "Skybourne", for example, will feel like mixtape tracks to people who find those collaborations familiar, but on repeated listens, the verses that originally feel rehashed begin to expose their charm and individuality. Devin the Dude, for example, appears most tokenly on "Chilled Coughphee" but manages to turn in perhaps his most technical, rhyme-oriented verse in a decade. And the JETS homies Trademark and Young Roddy turn in definitive verses in their young careers; not statements of virtuosity or relevance, but certainly of talent and charisma. Nesby Phips continues to tease with a great guest verse on his amazing beat. Mikey Rocks and Snoop Dogg are the two losers here: Mike might be able to sleepwalk through a non-Chuck Inglish track without aggravating anyone, but Snoop's Def Poetry-style verse is going to leave a number of passersby shaking their heads in disbelief. Knowing the song was originally intended to book right-hand man Wiz Khalifa prior to label drama only makes it hurt more.
Curren$y is more focused than your favorite rapper. His producer(s) and his label are more supportive than your favorite label. And despite his narrow subject matter, his creativity within that lane is such that you hardly notice the familiar motifs. The album is southern, it's mid-90s east coast jazz rap, it's west coast playful. It's without a doubt the best hip-hop release of 2010, and might as well get ready to earn praise in the smart circles as one of the best overall releases of the year as well. The best argument I can make for Curren$y as a rapper is that Mos Def is relegated to a mere hype man on two separate tracks, dropping by for a chorus and some brief non-sequiturs. As much as anything, it's the respect given to Curren$y by his peers that certifies Pilot Talk among not only the year's best, but the genre's.